How to cope with ringing in your ears
Dear Savvy Senior:
Are there any new treatments you know of that can help with constant ear ringing syndrome known as tinnitus? I’ve had it for years, but it’s gotten worse the older I get.
— Ringing Louder at 62
Tinnitus is a common condition that affects around 45 million Americans, but is usually more prevalent in the 60-and-older age group. Here’s what you should know, along with some tips and treatments that may help.
What is tinnitus?
Tinnitus (pronounced tin-NIGHT-us or TIN-a-tus) is the sensation of hearing a ringing, buzzing, roaring, hissing or whistling sound in one or both ears when no external sound is present.
The sounds, which can vary in pitch and loudness, are usually worse when background noise is low, so you may be more aware of it at night when you’re trying to fall asleep in a quiet room. For most people, tinnitus is merely annoying. But for many others, it can be extremely disturbing.
Tinnitus itself is not a disease, but rather a symptom of some other underlying health condition. The best way to find out what’s causing your tinnitus is to see an audiologist, or an otolaryngologist — a doctor who specializes in ear, nose and throat diseases (commonly called an ENT).
The various things that can cause tinnitus are:
- Age-related and noise-induced hearing loss — this is the most common cause.
- Middle ear obstructions, which are usually caused by a build-up of earwax deep in the ear canal.
- The side effects of many different prescription and nonprescription medicines, including aspirin, ibuprofen, certain blood pressure medicines and diuretics, some antidepressants, cancer medicines and antibiotics.
- Various medical conditions — such as high blood pressure, vascular disease, diabetes, allergies, thyroid problems, ear or sinus infections, Meniere’s disease, Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, otosclerosis, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder, a tumor, an injury to the head or neck, traumatic brain injury, depression, stress and more.
Treating the causes
While there’s currently no cure for tinnitus, there are some ways to treat it, depending on the cause.
For example, if your tinnitus is caused by a wax build-up in your ears or a medical condition (high blood pressure, thyroid problem, etc.), treating the problem may reduce or eliminate the noise. Or, if you think a medication you’re taking may be causing the problem, switching to a different drug, or lowering the dosage, may provide some relief.
Another treatment option for tinnitus, that can help suppress or mask the sound so it’s less bothersome, is “sound therapy.” This can be as simple as a fan or a white noise machine, or something more sophisticated, like a modified-sound or notched-music device like Neuromonics (neuromonics.com) or the Levo System (otoharmonics.com) that actually trains your brain not to hear the tinnitus.
Or if you have hearing loss, hearing aids can help mask your tinnitus by improving your ability to hear actual sounds. There are even hearing aids today that come with integrated sound generation technology that delivers white noise or customized sounds to the wearer on an ongoing basis. Your audiologist or ENT can help you with these options.
There are also certain medications that may help. While currently there’s no FDA approved drugs specifically designed to treat tinnitus, some antianxiety drugs and antidepressants have been effective in reliving symptoms. Behavioral therapies, counseling and support groups can also be helpful.
Other things you can do to help quiet the noise is to avoid consuming things that can aggravate the problem, including salt, artificial sweeteners, sugar, alcohol, tonic water, tobacco and caffeine. And protect yourself from loud noises by wearing earplugs.
For more information on tinnitus treatment options, visit the American Tinnitus Association at www.ata.org.
Send your questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.